I hear voices, and I’m grateful for them. I eavesdrop shamelessly. I’m not above following people into a store or even a rest room just to hear the climax of their conversations. I’ve collected all manner of diverse voices in notebooks ever since I was a child and would walk to school with voices murmuring in my head. Back then they were the voices of pigs and cats and strange little creatures I called snurds. I treasured those voices–especially when the teacher said: “Now boys and girls, it’s time for spelling!”
Later on I got into school and community theater and was able to become those characters who were so wonderfully different from my own boring self. At fourteen I played farcical Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. I can still recall Bottom’s dying scene as Pyramus, after finding Thisbe’s bloody mantle: “Thus I die I, thus (stab) thus (stab) thus (stab). Now I am dead…” At sixteen I did a scene as Joan of Arc and almost gave up my voices because she heard voices and then she was burned at the stake. And in community theater I portrayed an old Irish woman who’d lost her husband and five sons to the sea. In the end Maurya cries: “They’re all gone now, and there isn’t anything more the sea can do to me…No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied.” I loved that poignant voice–the voice of a survivor.
But I wasn’t satisfied just hearing those voices. My own life was so humdrum in the girls’ boarding school I was stuck in from age twelve–and then the all-women’s college–that I had to create my life elsewhere. Now each morning I go to the computer and the voices come–as many as six different voices in each novel. Each character I create has a limited vision, is therefore an unreliable narrator, with a slightly warped view of events. But they cry out in my inner ear–sometimes in first person and most often in third. For third person, I feel, gives more distance, more perspective, the way the character can sometimes comment on others in the book.
I would argue that multiple points of view can enhance a mystery. And out of these myriad voices, these often flawed characters, comes a plot. Each character contributes a little to the story line, creating suspense, driving the narrative forward. At the same time, though, it’s a challenge to differentiate the voices so the reader might know who’s speaking without being told (he said, she said). I don’t always succeed at this, but I try not to have the characters be interchangeable! I suppose one can always rely on a “tag” like “jeez” or “you know,” but I think it’s a character’s attitude toward life and events that characterizes, as well as the words.
Here’s single mother, pragmatic farmer Ruth, feeling sorry for herself, looking out the barn window at a heifer in heat, being mounted by other cows. “The heifer was enjoying it, Ruth thought–Ruth, who hadn’t made love with a man since her husband Pete went off with that sexy actress, leaving Ruth with three kids and a hardscrabble farm.”
Or Ruth’s ten-year-old son Vic, teased by his schoolmates because he has manure on his boots; so he uses neighbor Gerry as scapegoat. “Gerry didn’t take many baths. Or if he did, he got back in the barn right after. Gerry got the same guff as Vic and he stunk twice as bad. Wasn’t fair. It hurt all the farm kids. Wasn’t fair.”
Or my rebellious great-aunt Glenna, accused (in my fiction) of killing her husband, trying to remember what happened decades before when she went after him with a pitchfork: “Glenna, who used to ride through the meadow bareback–no saddle for her! She and her horse Jenny could take any of those goddam fences. More’n that patsy, stick-in-the-mud husband could ever do!”
And Lucien Larocque, whose voice I borrowed from our French-Canadian carpenter–assaulted in my novel and left for dead: “The phone wire was cut–they done that, too. Now, holy Mother of God, his bloody cheek full of holes like he was Jesus nailed to the cross! Close his eyes and that was all he knew: the boot in the face, the smell of fear. ”
In poems and short stories I”ve lived in the head of a jaded woman I call Fay, who walked out on her husband with nothing but rocks in her pockets and now lives six flights above a Video King. But when she leans out the window she can see “a slice / of sky and sometimes the handle / on the Dipper.” And I currently dwell in the head of 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who told her male critics “I’m not telling women to have power over men, but over themselves.” I read her collected letters over and over just to keep that feisty, original voice in my bones and try to emulate it in my mystery novels.
And now, dear readers, I’d love to hear some of your voices–to enjoy–not to borrow!